There’s just over a month left till the URCNA’s tenth synod convenes in Wyoming, MI, and my guess is that many of our elders and pastors feel like they’ve been punched in the face by the recently-released 566-page provisional agenda. Our federation needs to make many difficult decisions this summer related to positions on current cultural issues, unity with other denominations, liturgical forms, and, of course, the Psalter Hymnal project.
If you’re struggling to wade through the provisional agenda, you may find Revs. Mark Vander Pol and Norman Van Eeden Petersman’s 16-page overview helpful. I don’t think I’ll be blogging (slogging?) through the agenda’s various materials related to the songbook project as I did back in 2012, but I’ll attempt to make some summarizing remarks in this post.
To my knowledge, the report from the Psalter Hymnal Committee on pp. 163-174 of the provisional agenda is the first public communication from the committee since last fall. A few readers have expressed the opinion that the committee is failing to communicate important information to the churches. I tend to disagree, since the very presence of the PsalterHymnal.org website with every psalm and hymn to be included in the collection goes above and beyond the committee’s mandate. At the same time, I understand this frustration, since updates about the project tend come from magazines like New Horizons or The Outlook—second- or even third-hand—and not from the committee itself. The Psalter Hymnal area of the URCNA website doesn’t appear to have been updated since 2013! It is hard to fault an overworked and understaffed committee for this, but I do fear that the scarcity of information is hindering the churches’ view of the project.
In any case, the Psalter Hymnal Committee provides these updates in their report:
- They have named the book the Trinity Psalter Hymnal.
- They are continuing to edit and obtain copyright permissions for the psalter section.
- They have completed the list of songs for the (new) Hymn Proposal.
- They have decided that the Liturgical Forms Committee should publish the URCNA’s new liturgical forms in a separate booklet from the songbook.
- They have decided to leave pronouns referring to God uncapitalized and to retain archaic language (including the name “Jehovah”) in classic hymns.
- They have decided on the basic contents of the songbook (introductory essays, indices, etc.).
Unfortunately, the report remains unclear as to what action the Psalter Hymnal Committee expects Synod 2016 to take besides approving the hymn section. The mention of the name change to the Trinity Psalter Hymnal, for instance—is that decision final, or are they requesting that it be approved on the floor as part of “receiving the work of the committee to date”? Similarly, the report cites a separate recommendation from the Liturgical Forms Committee about publishing a separate liturgical forms booklet, but this recommendation is actually missing from both committees’ reports (as Vander Pol and Van Eeden Petersman note). If I am not the only one confused by the structure of this report, the synodical process is likely to become jammed in trying to untangle the actions implied in these pages.
As readers of URC Psalmody know, I am a passionate advocate for a new denominational Psalter Hymnal. And I believe it is possible to utilize the discussions and deliberations on the floor of synod to refine the finished product into the best songbook it can be. But it is only possible when elders, consistories, classes, synods, and standing committees each understand the nature and extent of the authority they have been given to make decisions. Unfortunately, the URCNA still struggles to define the power of its various ecclesiastical bodies, and I think that confusion is revealed in this report along with so many of the other materials submitted to Synod 2016. I’m not suggesting any one of the bodies involved is to blame, but (like the huge overtures at Synod 2012) I am afraid it may be a disaster to place so much material before a synod that doesn’t know what it is expected to approve.
When I published my argument for the new Psalter Hymnal in the March/April issue of The Outlook, one of the strongest objections I received from readers related to the location of authority in the church. Many URCNA members fear that a denominational songbook represents a shift toward centralized government, what one commenter called “federalism” in the churches. To the contrary, it is argued, local consistories have the exclusive jurisdiction over what gets sung in a congregation’s worship.
As others have noted, this is a false dichotomy. The authority of local consistories and the authority delegated to synod are not contradictory. One arises from the other. And it should be possible to make decisions for the common good of the churches without ignoring the needs and circumstances of local congregations. But the misunderstanding persists, and it goes far beyond the question of a new Psalter Hymnal to the problems of ecumenical relations, joint church orders, and more. What does unity really mean? Until we pause to answer that question, I think the road to a denominational songbook will remain rough.